When I was 14, I started taking photos with my point and shoot camera and posting them on flickr. This quickly morphed into my creative outlet and passion. I felt alive, inspired, driven to create. I bared my soul for the camera. I was inspired by a plethora of artists taking self-portraits of themselves in dramatic golden hours, fields of flowers, cityscapes, vulnerably showing their faces, bodies, and emotions to a public audience. Nothing held me back, and like a little fawn learning to walk, I’d grab my camera and prized 50mm lens I saved up for and head out on artistic quests.
I knew from a young age I was capable of feeling bigger, deeper emotions than it seemed most of my peers did. I held heartbreak, I held tension, I held angst, I held a chronic sense of nostalgia. I showed this to the camera. I learned how creativity could help me express these feelings, and in the process, make me feel alive.
When I turned 15, I was already deep in the self-portrait game. So it was only obvious that I’d be commemorating that day with a self-portrait. I remember the magical feeling of being 15, which felt so old and mature.
Soon after that birthday, my abusive relationship began and my relationship to photography changed. It became something to sneak, something to defend, something to cling to. A form of a lifeline to my soul. Another thing for him to attack.
I did everything I could to hide what was going on to everyone around me. I lied, I laughed, I pretended. I would post photos of us constantly with flowery captions that romanticized the controlling, possessive relationship I thought was true love. I couldn’t hide it in the self-portraits though.
I wrote a whole post about some of the darkest self-portraits I took during the relationship. Today’s focus is on the ones from my birthdays. My birthday is May 16th, and growing up in Michigan this meant that FINALLY, spring was here. There was so much lightness, so much blooming. I wanted to bloom too.
When I turned 16, I took this photoshoot of me in the cherry blossoms. My caption for this on flickr read:
“Today I turned sixteen. I look different, i guess, not really any older though. or better.. ha. This is just to record what I look like now I guess, i don’t really like it”
Safety in self-deprication. I had a moment to myself, a time spent away from the world, an escape in the cherry blossoms. But I had already internalized there was nothing in me that was worth liking – not my looks, my creativity… all of this just reflecting the ways I was slowly dying inside.
But through it all, there was hope. I still created. A defiant act beyond what I realized. A way of saying, “I’m still here. I’m still trying.”
When I turned 17 he was away at rehab. I was safe, and I was hopeful this would make him get better, too. I was free to see friends, many of which were (and still are) incredible artists. I remember having this photoshoot in my backyard and being really proud of it, and really happy he wasn’t around to pick it apart. (Also, look at those BANGS). There is so much tenderness held in the way my face is grazing the flowers. There is so much evidence that I wanted to lean in, to receive, to be held in nature. To just be me again.
When I turned 18 I was about 2 months out of the relationship. 2 months into the most chaotic, “free”, reckless time of my life. I was so f*cking happy. I had never felt so alive, so free, like such an adult. I thought it was so cool I could smoke cigarettes and drive to a different city to party with my friend who was in college. This version of me had no time for tenderness, she loved Lana Del Rey and just wanted to live fast and hard. But she still wanted to be seen, and I feel the tenderness in that alone.
When I turned 19, the guy I was in love with who was completely emotionally unavailable to me just ignored my birthday. He essentially “ghosted me” although I didn’t have that term yet. I don’t have any photos from the day itself, but it was spent coming to terms with the fact that he was never going to give me what I needed: attention, affection, and love. I still didn’t see that I’d have to give it to myself. I thought I was broken and damaged, and needed someone to complete me. My heart can touch this part of me now, give her the love she needed so badly.
When I turned 20 I was trying to pretend I enjoyed a relationship that was completely out of alignment. I was trying to be a “good girlfriend”, trying to play my role right, trying to feel like I belonged there. Trying to convince myself that love was real. I was anxious all the time, I would have given anything to be 18 again. I hated who I was and I still wanted someone else to make that go away. I feel so much love for her, so much softness, because I can feel her pain and see it for what it is now: unprocessed trauma.
When I turned 21 I had cycled back to the feeling of being 18: freedom. I felt alive, I felt young, I felt like my life was finally beginning. I still wasn’t ready to look within and face everything I held inside, but I was ready to move in the direction of REAL happiness, of boundaries, of self-care. It was a hopeful time. It was abundant. My tenderness was encased in a shell of determination, of pushing and forcing, but I was moving in the right direction. This was taken on a mountain, which started hiking as a major outlet and source of joy for me.
When I turned 22 I was deep in the cycle of processing my trauma and coming to terms with everything I had been suppressing for years. I felt like I was being squeezed by everything in my life, I felt like to be loved and accepted I had to preform for everyone who knew me. I thought I had to be fun, lighthearted, “NORMAL” to be loved. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom writing, at the gym trying to work out until the anxiety faded, and brainstorming ways I could escape the trap I had made for myself in my life. This was that time when they say “it gets worse before it gets better”. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now.
When I turned 23 I was in the cocoon of the life I made in California. I was learning, finally, spiritual and self-care practices that helped ground me, helped me feel connected to something other than the relationships I created by people pleasing. I felt more stable than I had in years, but also on a rotation of feeling triggered, tender, hopeless and hopeful. I was (and still am) so proud of the life I created for myself in this time. The container I made for me to heal in, although I didn’t have that language at the time.
When I turned 24 I was working at a job that exhausted me, but I was finally learning to advocate for myself. I had a 7am to 9pm day on my birthday teaching 5th graders on the coast, and there was no time for the practices that made me feel grounded and centered. No time to nourish myself. I was writing in my journal on my 30 minute break though, and that day’s entry had this dark optimism from the place of taking stock of where I really was, knowing that I was still deep in the healing process. “What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.” was my mantra from Game of Thrones. Despite the heaviness that clouded me, I quietly celebrated the fact that I was still alive. I wanted to make it to another day, another year, and I did.
Tomorrow I turn 25, and it is powerful to look at the ways I’ve transformed. Looking back at this year is truly incredible. I moved to Portland and finally let myself be truly seen and loved by my partner. I advocated for myself and my needs in jobs. I let myself be totally okay with the fact that working long hours is something my body is not up for. I let myself rest. From this base, the biggest shift could occur, which is I finally let myself speak my truth. I laid it all on the line and started believing in my inner wisdom, in my transformation. I started believing I really am still lovable, still okay, even when I’m not “normal”, even when my nervous system is reactive, even when I feel anxious or different than everyone in the room.
I started to finally love myself for who I am, as I am, and let that be seen through my writing.
I decided to start taking birthday self-portraits again. I want my tenderness to be seen. I want to give myself the gift of noticing myself, of being with myself, of letting my emotions come through in the photos. I took these in my apartment complex’s yard and it was so soothing.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the power & creativity we are born with never leaves us, no matter how hard someone tries to destroy it. Our energy might be so depleted that we can barely access either the power or the creativity, but we can always return home to these parts of us when we feel safe enough to do so.
There’s a part of me that’s growing, a part that’s blooming, a part that wilting, a part that’s dying, a part that’s being birthed. All at once. I am learning to sit with this, to embody this complexity.
So here’s to 25. Thank you for being with me on this journey. ❤